Mira Bartok’s memoir, The Memory Palace
, recounts the final days of the life of her schizophrenic mother. After not seeing each other for seventeen years, Bartok learned that her mother was dying and decided to go to her to say a final goodbye.
A few years before Bartok learns of her mother’s impending death, she suffered her own traumatic brain injury after being involved in a car crash. After the injury, Bartok became increasingly sympathetic to her mother’s condition, as her own condition mirrored that of her mother’s in many ways. Rendered unable to work, Bartok became reliant on disability checks, which were insufficient to support her. Before the accident, Bartok had been a skilled painter and writer of children’s books. Her mental faculties were a key component of her professional life as well as her identity. Everything that she had relied on and looked to in order to define herself instantly disappeared from her life.
In order to cope, Bartok comes up with what she refers to as her memory palace. The concept is based on a story by the ancient Greek poet, Simonides. According to the story, Simonides was attending a party at a palace where the building collapsed. Having stepped outside moments before, Simonides, unharmed by the incident, was called upon as an important witness because he alone could identify the bodies based on where people had been standing. After hearing this story, a sixteenth-century Jesuit priest devised a technique whereby scholars could build a palace in their minds in order to protect their most treasured memories. They could do this by creating a visual image associated with each memory and assigning each image a particular location within the mental palace.
The beginning of the book deals with Bartok’s childhood, filled with incidents of embarrassment and abuse beyond what the average child experiences. Over time, her mother devolved into a crippling state of mental illness, and her father, a writer, walked out on their family when she was young. The only thing he left Bartok to remember him by was his collection of books. Bartok and her sister get in the habit of escaping their own family and taking refuge at their grandmother’s house, where they are well-fed but also subjected to talk of their mother’s debilitating illness at an early age.
After she graduates high school, Bartok leaves Cleveland and moves to Michigan to attend college. She spends two years there before moving to Chicago for art school. Bartok grows into herself in these years, learning who she is and what fulfills her. She finds joy in creating art and keeps busy with several jobs to support herself, working in education as well as a museum. Meanwhile, back at home, her mother’s condition continues to deteriorate. She starts to receive disturbing phone calls from her mother at all hours of the day and night. She is informed that her mother has accidentally overdosed and that she was restrained at an airport after waving around a knife in a threatening manner.
Bartok assures herself that there is nothing she can do to help and continues to bury herself in her work and her creative projects in order to prevent herself from thinking about the whole situation. This works until one day when Bartok’s mother shows up unannounced at the museum where she works, demanding that her daughter accompany her home to Cleveland. This is the point when Bartok and her sister realize that they can no longer bury their heads in the sand and that drastic action is in order.
They both change their names and go into hiding from their mother. Her sister cuts off all contact, but Bartok stays in touch with her mother through letters, providing vague details about her life. At the same time, the schizophrenia has taken over and Bartok’s mother is now homeless, spending her nights on park benches. Bartok confesses that she prioritized her freedom and her art above all else, and in this way, she justified abandoning her mother, just as her sister had done.
After seventeen years, Bartok receives word that her mother is gravely ill. She has just been involved in a car accident and is dealing with her own brain injury. Both she and her sister decide to go be by their mother’s side in the hospital, as she dies a slow death from stomach cancer. As her mother slips away before her very eyes, Bartok takes the opportunity to rifle through her mother’s belongings, giving her a glimpse into the woman she hardly knew. When she finds her mother’s journals, she realizes the similarities between her own brain injury and the schizophrenia her mother suffered from for the better part of her life.